“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”
When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).
A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:
Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”
Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”
Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.
Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.
The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.
Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.
Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.
All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!
My Ratings (out of 10 As):
Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)
Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)